If post-match press conferences are anything to go by, a slight hint by a player could lead to a bigger insight. So when New Zealand’s reserve opener-cum-wicketkeeper Luke Ronchi arrived for the presser after scoring 107 against Mumbai in the warm-up game at the Feroz Shah Kotla last week, he said that his mantra was to get off strike as early as possible.
Not just Ronchi, but the way Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor went about their business shows that the Kiwis have a plan to counter the Indian spin challenge.
“My game plan was almost to try to get off strike,” Ronchi said. With the field in, then I try hitting them out. A couple over the top (big hits) and there are a few more gaps. That is how I pretty much go about my batting. If it works, then fantastic, though it is not going to work all the time. I think the best way to bat sometimes is to be at the other end.”
Ronchi used his feet well against spinners, targeted the open areas in the field and went over the top occasionally. His 107 came in 112 balls with a strike rate of 95.53. In the first innings, Kane Williamson, Ross Taylor and Mitchell Santner had strike rates above 70, meaning they batted with a plan to keep the strike rotating. Williamson and Taylor, both of whom possess better techniques, also employed such an approach. Williamson danced out the track to break the cordon while Taylor used his sweep shot to score runs and be at the other end.
Such an approach has been beneficial for the Kiwis in the subcontinent. In 2004, opener Mark Richardson scored 145 at Mohali in the drawn Test. Three others such as Lou Vincent, Scott Styris and Craig McMillan too hit centuries but the wicket at Mohali was flat and didn’t turn much. Richardson and Co tasted success because their innings had a healthy mix of approaches. They used the sweep to a great extent and danced down the wicket often to negate the threat posed by the Indian spinners.
Though, the Kiwis couldn’t do any better than that on future Indian tours as the wickets supported turn. However, the individuals who succeeded on the subcontinent did so by backing their instincts. In 2012, Taylor and Williamson produced centuries against Sri Lanka in Colombo to beat the hosts by 167 runs. Both Kiwi batsmen had used a similar approach to overcome the Lankan spinners.
“Anytime we play in the subcontinent, you got to play the sweep shot or the cut shot. The guys were practising it in the first training. It is like playing to your strengths and not everyone’s strengths is the sweep shot and some people had success here. Looking at Brendon McCullum, when he got a 200 here, it was not sweep but reverse sweep that he was able to put pressure back on the bowlers,” said Taylor at Kotla.
For most foreign nations, performing in India remains the ultimate challenge. When Australia played India at Kotla in 2013, Steven Smith gave a tough time to Ravichandran Ashwin, Pragyan Ojha and Ravindra Jadeja. The Aussie knew he would have to use his feet to kill the turn and make things simpler for him rather than sticking to the wicket with a heavy cordon around him. He scored 46 off 131 balls and on 26 occasions he stepped out to spinners to look for ones and twos.
Last month, Smith struggled in Sri Lanka initially but got a century in the final Test. In a knock of 218 balls, Smith had to jump down the track close to 40 times to achieve success. Before that, almost every Aussie batsman failed to come to terms with the spin and wicket and kept losing wickets.
England batsman Kevin Pietersen could be another example. On the 2012 tour of India, Pietersen’s knock of 186 at Mumbai, with a strike rate of nearly 80, showed dominance. Pietersen had failed in the previous Test at Ahmedabad. Ojha broke his timber as he was stuck in the crease. It was early in the tour and England lost the match by nine wickets. Then the U-turn happened and the visitors employed a dominating approach to turn the tables on India.
Last year when South Africa visited India, the only batsman who succeeded on the dust bowls was AB de Villiers. After having watched the entire team fall prey to spinners, he realised that taking on the spinners was the only way to put pressure back on the hosts. Though de Villiers scored half-centuries at Mohali, the other failures didn’t help his cause.
Such an attacking approach has done a lot of good for touring teams off late. For Kiwis, they might not have a batting order as strong as England or even South Africa, but the presence of Taylor and Williamson in the line-up means they could bat in any situation by moulding their game accordingly.
At Kanpur, the wicket is expected to be a slow turner. The pitch on which they warmed up at Kotla wasn’t even close to what they are going to get in the first Test, but they certainly have the mantra to succeed. For New Zealand, the difference between success and failure will be decided on the basis of how easily they adapt to change. That could be their key to this tour.